Ask Anything – State Of The Photography Industry 2011

- - Ask Anything

Former Art Buyers and current photography consultants Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease have agreed to take anonymous questions from photographers and not only give their expert advice but put it out to a wide range of photographers, reps and art buyers to gather a variety of opinions. The goal with this column is to solicit honest questions and answers through anonymity

QUESTION:

Can you write an article about the true reality of the photo industry across the board in LA, NYC, Dallas, and Chicago, or wherever?  It seems most ad agencies don’t view books in person, only online. Art Buyers are looking for work, photography jobs are being over run by secretaries, moms, dads, facebook friends, interns, and college kids out of school who just decide one day to pick up a camera. Software, cameras, HD video, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax have made it so easy for consumers to just take up the profession and to steal that minimum day rate away from a professional.

I grew up with my dad being a professional commercial photographer from the 60′s and grad from Art Center College of Design on 3rd st, which I also graduated from in 2002 in Pasadena. Back then, it was a true profession, going to the lab, pushing and pulling chrome, sweating overnight to make sure it turns out, and hand delivering it to the client and then going to eat lunch and to meet more creatives. Everything is so computerized with FTP, Facebook, Twitter, and web galleries. There is nothing personal these days. I’ve talked with a handful of reps, photographers, and art buyers, and they are all scrambling to find the next gig. What is the true reality with our photo industry?  Is it dying and being taken over by overnight photographers? I remember the days (2008) when I would shoot for Coca-Cola with a large production, multiple talent, digital techs, producers, assistants, all working as a team and feeling great about an end product.

Would be great if you could interview some photographers, art buyers,reps, producers…..To just get an inside feel of the true interpretation of the future of 2011.  Just a thought…. I love reading your articles.  I know your audience would like to know a true grit forecast for the year.

ANSWERS:

PRINT PRODUCER:
Overall I’m seeing a need for images that look more organic and effortless -shot well, but less produced. I constantly find myself in the microsite/flickr battle and do my best to romance clients with the idea of taking the things from those avenues that are great but applying them to custom photography that looks good (for them and their specific project) and is shot well, while also taking all the things that my clients will want addressed into consideration. I’ll caveat this by saying that I think there is some wonderful work on flickr, if you’ve got time to sift through it.  I also think that in this day and age of immediate media gratification, clients see images here and think yes, that could work. Let’s just use that. Showing the client that they can have that wonderfully, effortless looking photo shot specifically for them, is where I’ve been coming in lately.

Clearly everyone is looking to save money where they can, which can sometimes mean shooting more per day. For me this can be done, depending on the shot list, but also means mostly likely a more mobile and smaller crew. Being realistic in these situations, of what can be done with the allowed time and budget is key. I think things can be accomplished under most budgets, but managing expectations properly makes this work.

I’m not really sure what all this really means for the photography industry as a whole. I know that photography as content will always be needed, regardless of the the constantly changing medium to which it is applied. I’m doing my best as an art buyer to make sure that my creatives (and clients) get an amazing end product with photography that was shot with their project in mind. But each project has it’s own bends and folds and I think being flexible while not giving away work for free, and being upfront and honest about what is realistic is the best way to help everyone in today’s market.

AGENT:
I am just starting my twenty-fifth year as an agent. Twenty five years in business for myself. A wonderful journey with a few bumps along the way. A few recent tempestuous years with end of the world talk and how only Bruce Willis can save us from calamity is finally coming to an end. I’m actually feeling more optimistic right now. Yes there have been major changes and the axis of the planet has tilted in a different direction, but new possibilities are also opening up to those who have the courage and stamina to continue.

Everyone has already written countless articles about how assignments have been chipped away. The recession, stock imagery, reductions in magazine advertising, digital photography where every person has a camera in their pants and sees themselves and the great hype hope. And of course there is the reduction of licensing images for a limited time and the expansion of image libraries for use in perpetuity. Some assignments have looked like those all-you-can-eat Vegas buffets for $2.99.  And then there are the shooters who just give it all away in exchange for the fame to see their name in print or images published. We can freeze up, get pissed about all this or we can jump in and look towards the wonderful new possibilities.

Socializing is back big time. The obvious is connecting through networks like Facebook and writing personal blogs to be out there. Our markets and potential connections have actually expanded, but it is still necessary to keep those personal connections intact. Pressing the flesh. No matter how upset or discouraged you may get about the present and future of our industry, it is so important to be respected and trusted. This is how I have always tried to run my business. Treat everyone with honesty and respect and they will come back again and again. Take interest! Be personal!

I am so proud of the artists I represent and I know that it is difficult for them when assignments don’t come through, but we will continue to persevere and move forward. They will continue to shoot work for themselves and I will do my best to showcase their talent and keep my personal connections alive. I will continue to get them their auditions whenever possible.

I think Arthur Miller said it wonderfully through his character Willie Loman in Death of A Salesman, “The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates a personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”

DESIGNER:
The photography business has significantly changed in the last two years.

And I don’t think it is because anyone can get their hand on a camera. I think it is that industry is in a young flux, one that looks to technology for fast information. I see it every day, those with huge twitter followings have a great career. They understand how to brand and market themselves in the social networking sphere. But, I think the biggest change has yet to happen, motion. It’s imminent, ads will not be still shots but a mini commercials. As paper is used less and we all walk around with smart phones, iPads and the such, still will be an art.

However, no matter how much people complain, I have a lot of busy clients, they are just really good photographers. Yes, hustling a little more due to the economy, but still working and doing great work.

PHOTOGRAPHER 1:
Only being full time in the business since 2007, I only know the current market. I feel like I have gone about things a little differently. I have found that rather than working through an agency, I have been working directly with a client and bypassing the particular agency. Sometimes this happened after I started working through an agency then the client started hiring me directly. The result has been some wonderful long term working relationships.

The most recent large project still in the making, came through a creative consulting company that introduced me to the client and now the client is presenting me to their marketing team. This may be a little backwards but I feel a lot more confident in this approach than relying on an agency to keep me in the good graces of a client.

PHOTOGRAPHER 2:
The industry has obviously changed and evolved drastically over the past couple of years–otherwise there wouldn’t be some much press on diminished budgets, over saturated markets, etc.. I’ve personally chosen to embrace these changes and focus on what is rather than what once was. To be honest I only see opportunity. The reality is that there is work and art buyers/creatives are gladly meeting with photographers–I’m living proof. Over the past 6 months I have traveled all over the US sharing my new portfolio with over 25 agencies/companies. The key to getting appointments is simple–do your homework and be consistent in your marketing. Don’t expect someone to give you a meeting because you want one and if they turn you down don’t take it personally. Be relevant and give creatives an opportunity to preview your work first. For my meetings I first researched who was doing the type of work I’m interested in and then based portfolio reviews in regions in the US that had many of these relevant clients.  That increased my odds of filling my schedule making each trip more worthwhile. Personally these meetings have been a huge success. My business has grown tremendously over the past year and 2011 is off to a great start. I think the future looks extremely bright for those willing to embrace change. And for what it is worth the world is only as impersonal as you allow it to be.

PHOTOGRAPHER 3:

I agree the industry is in for a major change, all for the better. 2009 and 2010 were the 2 biggest years of my 30 year career. Despite the economy, if you are able to provide your clients with consistently good images, have good production skills, and keep your work relevant you will be successful. The economy is definitely getting a lot stronger, and many of my clients have already started telling me they expect to shoot a lot more this year.

Yes, the basic bread and butter jobs are being done in house, but expansion of technology is providing more venues for imagery, and creating a bigger demand. Besides the economic expansion new technology, specifically motion, will increase demand in the near future. It is critical that we, as creatives, continue to expand our vision and reinvent ourselves on a regular basis to remain relevant. Doing so will provide both personal and professional rewards.

To Summarize:

“new possibilities are also opening up to those who have the courage and stamina to continue”

“ …focus on what is rather than what once was”

Call To Action:
Decide how you want to be moving forward in 2011. Our vote would be to move towards optimism – it’s the most becoming look on you (and looks great with your camera too). And on top of that – get out there, get away from behind the computer and shoot and socialize!

If you want more insight from Amanda and Suzanne you can contact them directly (here and here) or tune in once a week or so for more of “Ask Anything.”

There Are 40 Comments On This Article.

  1. The first photographer seems happy to be cutting out the agencies that helped him/her get in the door in the first place. That doesn’t seem like a long term strategy to me. It’s apparently working for them now though. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in 5 years.

    • @Dave, It would seem that way but in fact the work they are doing for the client direct are projects that don’t go through the agencies. This approach has increased this photographers profit three times what it was just last year. In house corporate is one of the most overlooked areas in this business. Corporations can’t run everything through agencies and graphic designers because of the creative fees involved when sometimes that is not what the corporation needs.

      • @suzmanda, Isn’t that agency going to be biased against using that photographer for any other projects that have higher creative fees? Or is this a case of “go for it, there’s nothing there for us anyways”

      • @David Drake, I would agree with the client diversification. Beside any good business person knows you have a pool of clients.

  2. Steven Currie

    I like that the summary is a positive one, this is a common thread on many forums and blogs and it usually has a negative spin. Industries change and we can stay ahead of the “overnight” photographers by raising the bar, not lowering it.

    • Steve Koontz

      @Clifton Weber, Hey Clifton thanks for sharing that link. It sounds like they pass along as much information as might other wise be found in their book.

      • @Steve Koontz, the interview you are referring to was from the request of our publisher about the book….hence why they seem so alike.

  3. I distinctly remember these threads (or as we used to say “articles” or “bitching”) as the consistent product of every economic hiccup. And every single one was surpassed by even further changes.

    Somehow, though I’ve no time machine, whatever we think the iPad or iPhones foretell it will be something (completely) different. Plus in three out of the four recessions I’ve slogged through we grew.

    I’m a pretty firm believer in really hard work, never giving up and extreme luck.

    Did I mention never giving up?

    And does anyone but me remember that corporate speak “paradigm shift” line?

    LOL

  4. I think the overriding message is, always be pushing to create better images and stay persistent. Great photography will always have a home. Be better.

  5. I love the quote from Steve Martin where he says (paraphrasing here), “Just be so good that they can’t ignore you.” Seems applicable in any business climate.

  6. Take your photography to a unique level into a niche. Niching means you’ve chosen one area to focus on and to grow your business with. Niching means you’ve chosen one area you love, and are willing to work harder in that one area than any other. You’re ready to become the best you can be, and are willing to put everything you have into that one area.

    • @Andrew, I would agree that niching is good to a degree… but you don’t want to become too pigeonholed either. I know a photographer who’s niche was building/photographing bedroom sets for massive department store catalogs in the 80s and 90s. Needless to say, her business is not what it used to be now that a lot of that sort of thing is being done with smaller budgets by inhouse photographers. She’s having a hard time getting work with her highly specific portfolio. I totally think its important to hone one’s skills in certain areas, but I’d be cautious about putting all my eggs in one basket too.

      • @David Drake, I think it is important to niche but to figure out what niche is needed. Being passionate about that niche is gonna keep the pedal to the metal and that is a good thing. And yes pick up those other side jobs too. While I have my own niches, I can always expand it to include photographing “people” and that includes just about everything. ;)

  7. It seems that there are many paths forward. I am not a niche photographer nor am I in one of the large markets, yet I love what I do and I have seen a steady increase in assignments in the last three months.

    • @Michael, excellent to hear!!! Keep up the great work….and would love to see it be an increase of 12 months! and then years!

  8. I just don’t have any sympathy for the photographers out there that are still complaining about regular civilians picking up cameras and taking “their” jobs. Those jobs belong to the person who’s photos best fit the project and are priced accordingly. Do you really think art buyers are hiring retired mothers who buy a rebel and have a flickr account? (If they are, then you didn’t want that job anyway)

    “photography jobs are being over run by secretaries, moms, dads, facebook friends, interns, and college kids out of school who just decide one day to pick up a camera”

    Every photographer decided to pick up a camera at one point in time. Nobody’s born a veteran. Forever will be the complaint about the new school……so boring.

    • @Jeff,
      I think that many of those complaining are people whose work does not come through agents and art buyers. We cover a broad range of disciplines and get out work from lots of sources. Take photographers who specialize in portraiture or head-shots, for example: Many an amateur or enthusiast that picks up a camera thinks that all they have to do is point a camera and shoot a persons face and they have a head-shot. They go on internet forums and ask for advise and feedback, and then begin “marketing” their “services” often undercutting people who have been able to make a living doing this type of work because they just love to shoot, it’s a hobby or its just some additional income to supplement their main occupation.

      I think those who are working successfully may be keeping quite to remain off the radar screen.
      I do think that some of us have enabled the general public to feel that they can easily become a photographer and make money. There are a whole lot of seminars and workshops run by successful photographers sharing their “secrets” with the promise that you too can be like me.

      • @ron,
        Yes, but this is not what the posters question was about at all. Besides, if someone can replicate your work (head-shots, portraiture) that easy, then that sounds like your problem, not an industry problem.

        I’m not trying to be mean, I have to remind myself of the same thing every time I take pictures.

        • @Jeff, I realize what the OPs questions/request were. My response was specifically aimed at those who you cite as complaining; and actually since the OP was interested in the state of the industry, I do think the response is indeed relevant.

          There are also a growing number of clients in some areas of the photographic markets that are comfortable with something which is just good enough as opposed to being exceptional or unique. It is the same mentality that people have when they buy a knockoff bag or watch: This has significantly impacted some areas of the market and will continue to do so. It’s up the the affected individual to determine his or her own course of action.

          • @ron,

            From my perspective, I’m not seeing moms and doctors and neighbors taking over the market. What I’m seeing are clients (including some mighty big Fortune 500 ones) accepting anything as long as it’s cheap and it includes all rights. The effect is work is being bid off to the cheapest bidder and that seems to be affecting my market more than anything. There has been this big rush to the bottom, and we are all losing. Until quality becomes an issue again, I don’t see things changing anytime soon.

  9. I love photography! I love looking through a viewfinder, I love looking at a scene, person, place or thing and think to myself how can I make that look unique, amazing, or beautiful.

    What I dread is developing a plan to advertise, promote, and making who I am, known to those who should be hiring me. It hasn’t been easy. I keep pressing forward though. The spells of editing personal work and portraits gives me renewed energy to keep pushing. I have learned a lot form the article of the last year. I have learned a lot from those that Rob has included in his weekly fare.

    If you really love being a person that holds a tool to express your creativity and get paid for it , do the hard part and show what you can do and your worth. I look at it this way, If I spend 20% of my time marketing, I can spend 80% of my time being creative.

    I am having a better January than I did last year and the only thing I have done is market more.

    • @Ed,

      I very much agree with you. I’m mostly new to the game, and the social networking, advertising, blogging, etc, is extremely daunting to me. I’m young (30), but have never been connected in a social-media type way – I still don’t have a personal facebook or twitter account, etc. I agree that. Although to the one dude’s point, I would always prefer to personally interact, and it sounds like that still holds a lot of water.

      I love to shoot, create, plan, and bring visions to life. Now I need to determine how to do the marketing piece/post production piece (photoshop to me is like nails on a chalkboard) without driving myself to drink.

  10. The people who survive the current situation and thrive will be those who never stop developing new work, be it still or motion, can toot their horn the loudest, and have the goods to justify the horn-tooting. In that order.

  11. I have shot for many advertising/ design agency’s over the last 10 yrs, and never been
    particularly consistent at the self promotion part of things. I would guess this is something the majority of us photographers fall down on.
    The photography business requires alot of skills apart from just taking great shots and many of the most important skills often don’t come naturally to many of us.

    I think this probably stems from finding it difficult
    to edit my images for my folio. I am not really sure that the photographer is the best person to make the right choice.
    Any pointers would be greatly appriciated.

  12. No real solutions to the problem just yet… But good optimism and hang in there if you can financially. Me, I had to hang up the towel and get a real job. Until I can save up and reinvest

  13. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

    1) Certain areas of the industry have tanked. I know stock photographers who used to shoot advertising gigs and stock who have just simply left the business. Other areas of the industry have simply contracted: clients, whether major companies or couples getting married want to pay less.

    2) Many photographers, including myself, have simply reduced overhead a lot to stay in business.

    3) Other photographers have diversified or are trying other revenue streams. Some of these revenue streams are working or starting to pay off and some are not.

    4) Many companies are pinching pennies, and this usually results in shoots where there is little room for error or a lot has to be fixed in post. This can create a tense shooting environment.

    5) The industry is always changing. (Just ask those photographers who used to shoot a lot of Holga for Ray Gun Magazine.) You can change with it, or enjoy shooting with your Holga and go into another line of work.

  14. I have a hard time taking advice from anonymous photographers… it would be so nice if I could see the type of work they are producing, so I have some idea where they are coming from. Still worth the read, thanks for posting.

  15. BreeAnna Hallman

    I am in the 11th grade and I want to be a Photographer. What do I need to do to become one? Will I have a good chance to get into the photography industry?